The killer of Boris Nemtsov has confessed, signing a written statement that “confirms” his participation in the shooting of the prominent reformist and opponent of Vladimir Putin. The case might be closed in Putin’s Russia. But at home and around the world, it shouldn’t be. Which is why proponents of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act pending in Congress should take note and seize the moment to pass it.
The February 27 murder of Nemtsov, an outspoken leader of the opposition to President Vladimir Putin, took place at night by an unseen assassin, in the highly guarded area of the Kremlin. A critic of Putin since he became president in 2000, at the time of his death Nemtsov was in the midst of a sensitive investigation into Russia’s military presence in Ukraine, which Putin has denied is a military action, calling the Russian soldiers in the Crimea “volunteers.”
An impartial investigation should begin by focusing on those with an interest in silencing Nemtsov—namely, members of the Putin regime. When the executive branch is faced with a criminal investigation that implicates the executive branch, an independent counsel or special prosecutor should be brought in to ensure fairness and impartiality. But those concepts lost their currency in Russia long ago.
Instead, Putin and his Kremlin-controlled media have floated a variety of theories as to the identity of Nemtsov’s killer with no basis in fact, including that he was killed by a foreign spy agency (prime suspects: the CIA and the Ukrainian secret service); other members of the opposition to cast suspicion on Putin; and perhaps most improbably, a Chechen Islamic fundamentalist, Zaur Dadayev and his compatriots.
To be sure, Zaur Dadayev, Nemtsov’s alleged murderer, was a Muslim from the Caucasus. But there is no evidence that he was a terrorist: On the contrary, he served Putin’s Russia as the deputy commander of the North battalion of Russian Interior Ministry troops in Chechnya, even winning a commendation for bravery.
Dadayev’s confession is not merely inconclusive; it is deeply suspect for several reasons. Although Russian judge Nataliya Mushnikova asserted that “the participation of Dadayev is confirmed by his confession,” the contents of the signed confession have not been shared orally or in writing. This week we learned that Russian human rights activist Andrei Babushkin visited Dadayev in prison after the supposed confession and reported physical injuries consistent with torture, corroborating Dadayev’s assertion that he had been tortured with electricity, starved, and hooded. Babushkin’s report was immediately condemned by Russian authorities.
The use of torture to extract confessions is all too common in the Russian criminal justice system, particularly in the early days of a suspect’s detention. Torture is a tactic used in particular on individuals from the Caucasus region, as described in a 2013 report by the French NGO ACAT and the Public Verdict Foundation, which also noted that torture was regularly employed to resolve “ongoing cases” in the republic. Human rights attorney Batyr Akhilgov, a lawyer who represents those from the North Caucasus republics accused of terror attacks, including well-known torture victim Rasul Kudaevm, told Amnesty International that torture is a traditional component of ‘proof’,” in the Russian criminal justice system.
Finally, Nemtsov is not the first or last Russian who paid for his criticism of the government with his life. As detailed in the recently released book Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice, Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian attorney for investor William Browder, was imprisoned, beaten and left to die in police custody in 2009 as a result of his reporting on public corruption and tax fraud involving Russian tax officials. None of his assailants faced punishment by Russian authorities. And like Nemtsov, opposition figures in Russia have a history of meeting violent ends.
America’s response to torture and extrajudicial killings in Russia has grown louder as they have continued unabated. In 2012, Congress passed the bipartisan Magnitsky Act, which prohibits entry into the U.S. and freezes U.S. assets of individuals involved in the 2009 prison death of whistle-blowing Magnitsky, who was working for an American firm in Moscow. Since its passage, the original list of 18 individuals subject to visa bans and asset freezes has been expanded, though lawmakers have expressed frustration with the Act’s failure to target more powerful Putin supporters.
In January, the U.S. Senate introduced the Global Magnitsky Act, which would expand the Russia-specific sanctions in the Magnitsky Act to apply to human rights abusers and corrupt officials anywhere in the world—regardless of whether their crimes impact U.S. entities—and would make significant acts of corruption a sanctionable offense. The Act also addresses criticism that the reach of the Magnitsky Act was too limited; in an era of global banking and finance, the property sanctions have the potential to be far-reaching.
President Obama stated that Nemtsov’s murder was representative of a “climate” in which “freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of information, basic civil rights and civil liberties inside of Russia are in much worse shape now than they were four or five, 10 years ago,” and has called for an independent investigation. The president should urge the swift passage of the Global Magnitsky Act, and condemn Russia’s effort to close Nemtsov’s case with an unreliable, undisclosed confession by a convenient scapegoat. Boris Nemtsov, Zaur Dadayev, and all the victims of Putin’s autocratic hand deserve as much.
Juliet Sorensen is a clinical associate professor with the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Law School.
Alexa Van Brunt is an attorney at the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, a Clinical Assistant Professor at Northwestern University Law School, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.